‘She found the strength, for those children’

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They even stole the church’s door.

That’s how far they went to scare Hanley Denning away. At the time, all the young woman from Yarmouth had in Guatemala was inside a room in a tiny church across from a garbage dump. Thieves ransacked the room, taking everything with them. Including the door.

It didn’t work. “She talked about wanting to quit,” remembers Dr. Jon Torres, a physician at St. Mary’s Regional Medical Center and volunteer for Safe Passage, the humanitarian nonprofit founded by Denning. “She would wake up the next day, and just keep going.”

Dr. Torres was one of the hundreds of mourners who attended services this week for Denning, who died tragically Jan. 18 in a car crash in Guatemala. She was muse for Safe Passage, which aided hundreds of Guatemalan children, who live in garbage-strewn squalor.

The church door story was part of Denning’s words to new Safe Passage volunteers, such as Dr. Torres, about the challenges her organization faced. Safe Passage has a new obstacle now: continuing its good works without Denning, whose shoulders supported the organization.

We all want to make a difference in the world. Most don’t know how, but some, like Denning, find a way. She became a magnet for the energy of the Safe Passage volunteers, and channeled their myriad skills, and endless enthusiasm, into a community where help, for children, was needed most.

They called her “Angel of the Garbage Dump.”

“I feel privileged to have spent time with her,” says Dr. Torres, who remembers traveling the treacherous roads that would ultimately claim Denning’s life. “She was able to see the goodness in everybody.”

The lasting image for Torres is his final night with Safe Passage, when his group and Denning assembled for a close-knit dinner to reflect on their work. He described Denning as a sage, sitting with an exhilarated group of volunteers, amplifying their enthusiasm with her insight.

People like Denning, who devoted their life to the welfare of others, aren’t supposed to die this way. One would hope their selflessness could have been repaid, even though they would have likely declined the offer with a polite smile, embarrassed at the thought of recompense.

And who knows what she would have thought about the documentary “Recycled Life,” which features her and Safe Passage, earning a nomination for an Academy Award this week. We know how we feel: the accolade is fitting, and we hope it works to spread Denning’s message across the world.

We’re sure, given the outpouring of support in the days since her passing, that Safe Passage will continue to thrive. Denning’s light brightened too many lives to be extinguished by her absence, if the resolve of volunteers like Dr. Torres is any indication.

Hanley Denning lived her dream and, in that, there is a message for all of us. If you’re going to dream, dream big.

It just might come true.

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